This is the game: The news breaks of a horrible massacre using one of America’s 280,000,000 small arms. The scene of dozens of dead bodies in a single place breaks through the lassitude Americans have developed about the daily massacre of their fellow citizens.
The gun lobby is ready. The PR campaign begins while the police are still putting bodies in bags. These three arguments are most common:
- Guns are not in and of themselves dangerous.
- Additional gun control measures would not reduce violence.
- The Constitution forbids any form of gun control even if you wanted it.
The gun lobby and individual enthusiasts also catapult a series of hypotheticals at anybody daring to question the wisdom of current US gun laws:
- If this hadn’t been a gun-free zone, a hero with a gun would have emerged.
- If we were to outlaw any form of small arms, America would cease to be a democracy.
- The private civilian stockpile of small arms needs to be maintained in case “the people” need to rise up against US military, a struggle that would be successful because of rifles, shotguns and pistols.
- Even if you did make firearms harder to get, America would still be as violent.
These assertions are almost never accompanied by supporting evidence. The conclusion of such rhetoric is often that “statistics can’t prove anything,” and that the entire topic is a matter of opinion, the dominion of America’s political cults. We are thus condemned to inaction and fruitless, bitter debates about a topic that deserves popular attention.
In fact, there is an abundance of hard data collected by reliable institutions that definitively refute such assertions. The role of guns in violence and criminality in our society is not purely a matter of opinion, but a topic about which the data speaks volumes.
Let us look at the data and see if these arguments from the gun lobby stand up to intellectual rigor.
Refuting argument #1: “Guns are not dangerous”
After each massacre the gun lobby attempts to convince the public that not only are guns safe for society, the only thing that could make America safer is more guns in the hands of “good guys.” Every available statistic shows this to be wrong.
Let us begin with the basic information about gun violence in the United States of America, according the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United Nations and the US Centers for Disease Control.
US population: 310,000,000
Total number of civilian firearms: 280,000,000 – 88 per 100 population – #1 in the world
Homicides by firearm per year: 9146 (approximately 65% of all murders) – #29 in the world
Suicides by firearm per year: 19,392
Non-fatal crimes committed with firearms per year (rape, assault, robbery): 415,000
Right out of the gate, let us put to rest one of the most absurd arguments in circulation:
Guns are just tools, they aren’t dangerous in and of themselves.
Firearms are Americans’ number one choice for murder and suicide, amounting to 30,000 fatalities per year, and the commission of 415,000 serious felonies.
According to the University of Sydney’s Gun Policy project, the United States has approximately 110 million rifles, 86 million shotguns, and 114 million handguns, accounting for licit guns and approximating stockpiles of illicit guns.
Firearms do not bake bread; they do not make computer calculations; they do not deliver information; they have no therapeutic value. They are uniquely designed for violence. Most small firearms (revolvers, semiautomatic pistols, etc) are ill-suited for defense against wildlife threats (bears, lions, wolves, etc.) for which large-caliber, high-powered rifles are far superior.
So let us conclude the obvious – that at a minimum, hundreds of millions of small arms in America are destined for violence against other humans. They are murder weapons. Further statistics show that they are used in that capacity thousands of times a year.
Trends in homicide and the role of guns, from 1980 to 2012
The United States of America is actually on a major twenty year reduction in violent crime, which in absolute numbers has fallen from a peak in the 1980s and early 1990s, depending on the statistics. Here is the absolute number of homicides in the US, from 1950 to present.
*Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Homicide Trends in the United States 1980 – 2008“
Many criminal justice researchers suppose that the rapid ascent of violence in the late 1960s until the tapering off in the mid 1990s is due to simple demographics. The Baby Boom generation has added millions to the population of the United States, and violence reached a crescendo particularly as males of that generation reached adulthood. Other major factors involved in the recent drop in the rate of homicide victimization could include innovations in policing, a rise in incarceration rates (making America number one in the world for men behind bars), economic factors, technology and other issues. Man is complex. Violence is present in all societies. To thus pinpoint the overarching reasons for criminality is the work of statisticians and philosophers.
For the purpose of this argument, we can deal with one assertion about criminality that the gun lobby wants us to accept – that there is no connection between widespread firearm availability and crime. They want us to accept at face value, based on assertion rather than evidence, that more civilian guns does not mean more crime, and that fewer civilian guns would mean immediate conversion to a totalitarian state.
So let us begin with a basic question: are guns involved in homicide?
Guns: America’s preferred tool for homicide
The gun lobby says that guns are just tools, not specifically tied to violence per se. Here are America’s homicide statistics broken down by weapon:
Handguns are currently the preferred weapon in America for murder, as they have been for thirty years or more. You can see that prior to the mid-1990s, homicide by knife was more prevalent than by other types of firearms such as shotguns and rifles. Murder with firearms other than handguns has been climbing even as overall murder rates have been falling. I have not found any theories to deal with this. Let us conclude that knives, blunt objects and force are a fraction of the murders committed with America’s firearms.
Thousands of murders in America are of one person at a time, though it is mass murders that catch the public’s attention. I have heard representatives of the gun lobby assert that the choice of tool is no matter when it comes to mass murder:
If a criminal wants to kill dozens of people, he will do so irrespective of the weapon.
The data says, to the contrary, that firearms are the overwhelmingly popular choice of mass murderers.
If you want to kill a single person in America, you choose a firearm over 60% of the time, but if you are aiming to kill two or more people, firearms are your choice in almost 80% of instances. Anecdotally, the most spectacular and horrifying of mass murders in recent American history have involved firearms turned on crowds of strangers – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, and most recently the DC Navy Yard.
Let’s briefly deal with one more statistic about the preference of firearms in the commission of homicide. If you are a policeman in the line of duty, are you more likely to be killed with a gun, a knife, a blunt object, or bare hands?
Less than five percent of murders of officers in the line of duty are committed without the aid of a firearm. Let’s underline this part – the fact the police are armed and fully-trained to use firearms in close combat does not guarantee that they survive a shootout. Bear this in mind when gun lobbyists tell us that adding firearms to the classroom will allow teachers to stop armed lunatics and save the day.
To add more depth to our understanding, let’s examine the statistics on the use of firearms in homicide, broken out by the relationship between victim and offender.
Who is most likely to kill you, and with what kind of weapon?
The weapon used to commit murder varies depending on the relationship one has with the killer. The US Department of Justice states that you have a 75% chance of being acquainted with your murderer; only a quarter of murders are committed by a stranger.
For murders committed by a stranger, the overwhelming choice of murder weapon is a firearm.
When it comes to being murdered by an acquaintance, firearms are still the leading choice – though there will soon be a gender differentiation, so stay tuned. Here are weapon trends for homicides by an intimate, by weapon.
The choice of murder weapon shows a notable differentiation between the gender of the offender and the victim. If you are curious, gender is a major factor in murder – men are the majority of the victims and the vast majority of perpetrators:
The weapon differs depending on the gender of the victim. The majority of victims are male, and the weapon of choice is a tie between firearms and other weapons:
When looking at the 25% of homicide victims that are female, the majority killed by men known to them, once again the weapon of choice is clear – firearms.
Firearms: The gun lobby wants to convince you that people could commit murder with any of a variety of weapons, but the data shows that it’s usually guns.
Non-fatal crimes involving firearms
Another chart shows the deeper impact of a culture awash in easily available guns – non-fatal violent crimes. We become so fixated on the 30,000 deaths that America inflicts on itself every year that we lose track of other crimes, such as rape, robbery, and assault with a deadly weapon.
The good news is that non-fatal crime involving a firearm has fallen dramatically since an incredible frenzy of violence in the early 1990s. The bad news is that guns are still involved in over 400,000 crimes in America every year.
Note that crimes involving firearms are still only in single-digit percentages when factored into other violent events: bar fights, domestic disputes and the like. Regardless, we’re talking about over 400,000 incidences of being forced to have sex at gunpoint, of being beaten, robbed, or shot.
The gun lobby tells us that this is inevitable, that guns are no more or less effective at crime than broadswords, halberds, trebuchets or billy clubs – but Americans still choose guns for hundreds of thousands of crimes.
The Bottom Line on Guns in America
There are other data about how and why guns are used for violence in America. That Bureau of Justice Statistics report tells us that heated arguments, family disputes and crime are the overwhelming factors behind murder, not mentally ill people making irrational choices. This is followed on by a recent paper in the American Journal of Medicine entitled “Guns Do Not Make a Safer Nation” that sought to correlate mental illness with gun violence. Their conclusions showed that while mental illness did not correlate with increased gun violence, there was a strong statistical assocation between high rates of gun ownership and high rates of firearm deaths.
Data suggest that when you give guns to otherwise normal people, regular social altercations end up with people shooting each other, such as last week’s road rage double murder in Ionia, Michigan where two men with concealed carry permits became involved in a traffic incident, pulled into a car wash, dove for their guns and shot each other dead.
There’s one common factor to all of this: Guns. All data show that a nation awash in guns is more statistically likely to use them for their intended purpose – the murder of other human beings.
This becomes even more clear when America is compared to the rest of the world
Refuting argument #2: “More gun control would not help”
After a gun massacre that makes Americans aware of the level of violence in their society, you will hear this type of argument bandied about:
It wouldn’t matter if you passed laws limiting handguns or assault weapons or high-capacity magazines or anything – because gun control doesn’t work and criminals would just get the firearms some other way, leaving law-abiding gun owners defenseless. Ergo, we shouldn’t do a thing.
This argument is allowed oxygen because people rarely take the next logical step and compare US policies directly to other nations around the world with statistics in hand. Not coincidentally, the people making the gun-control-doesn’t-ever-work argument also will assert that America is totally special and that nobody else’s experience matters. This is a very convenient dodge. The gun lobby argues that gun laws other than America’s would never work, then it tries to keep you from making a comparison so that you might judge for yourself.
The reason why is obvious: America’s gun laws make it as violent as the developing world, while its industrialized peers have managed to combine gun control with low rates of firearm homicide and governments that have not, contrary to hysterics, become totalitarian nightmares.
Let us look at the data.
America – the most violent of the industrialized nations
To see the role of guns on violence in America, let’s compare the country to all other countries on Earth, with a special focus on nations that can be considered its peer in terms of standard of living and democratic government.
Basic statistics (source: United Nations Crime Trend Surveys):
Total homicide rate in the US: 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants – #102 in the world
Total gun homicide in the US: 2.97 per 100,000 inhabitants – #28 in the world
Rate of gun ownership in the US: 88.8 per 100 inhabitants- #1 in the world
The United States has the 102nd highest rate of homicide in the world, but it should be noted that the nations on the list that are more violent are not America’s peers when it comes to standard of living and rule of law. The only nation plausibly comparable to the United States is Estonia, a fellow member of NATO and European ally, which has just slightly more homicide at 5.2 per 100,000 inhabitants. The rest of the list of more violent nations are Honduras (#1), El Salvador (#2), Uganda, Mali, DR Congo, Kenya, and so on.
Perhaps more notable are the countries that are listed as having less total homicide than the US: Turkmenistan, Yemen, Iran, Algeria, Macedonia, Vietnam and other countries that would not be considered safe travel destination for American tourists.
Countries by rate of intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Source: UNODC.
A more compelling list is the comparison of countries in homicide by firearm, at which the US is 28th, only surpassed by: Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, Venezuela, Guatemala, Kitts & Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Belize, Puerto Rico, Brazil, South Africa, Dominican Republic, Panama, Bahamas, Ecuador, Guyana, Mexico, Philippines, Paraguay, Anguilla, Nicaragua, St. Vincent, Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, Argentina and Barbados.
All the countries more violent than the United States are generally considered politically unstable and economically developing.
The stature of the United States policy toward gun violence becomes instantly more grave when we compare our situation with that of other OECD nations.
Overall, what sticks out about the list is how much lower the rate of gun homicide is, even in countries that have millions of firearms in civilian hands. France, for example, has only 2% of the per capita gun homicide of the US, though with millions of firearms available in civilian society. Finland and Norway have longstanding traditions of hunting and sport shooting and the largest civilian arsenals in the world, yet also have but a fraction of America’s gun homicide.
The answer is very simple: gun control.
In France, hunting weapons are allowed after thorough background checks. Handguns and semiautomatic weapons are prohibited in the majority of cases. In the Nordic countries, the situation is the same. A citizen desiring a firearm must declare the use of the weapon, and self-defense is not considered a sufficient use for a firearm license. In New Zealand, where there is still a significant civilian stockpile of weapons, but where military-style semi-automatics and handguns are prohibited, only 13.5% of homicides are by firearm.
Gun control works. Criminals located in nations without easily-available handguns and assault weapons are not able to “get them anyway.” There is less violence in general and dramatically less gun violence. The only other explanation is that “Americans are murderous gun-toting thugs by their very nature,” an argument I don’t believe I shall hear emanate from the lips of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre any time soon.
The only remaining question is whether America has the political will to change its gun laws.
Refuting argument #3: “The US Constitution forbids additional gun control”
The available statistics categorically refute the notion that freely-available guns do not have a correlation with murder and crime, and comparisons to similar (non-totalitarian) nations show that their gun control policies balance the right to bear arms with dramatically lower homicide rates. This is when the gun lobby unveils its finally argument: this is the way things have to be, because the US Constitution forbids any further changes to the law.
We now depart the domain of statistics and head into logic and philosophy, areas that are considerably more subjective. Two of the main arguments from the gun lobby about the Constitution are:
The Bill of Rights says that Congress may never pass new legislations about guns, no matter how different firearms are from the days of the 18th century. Also, the Founding Fathers wanted Americans to be able to violently overthrow their government when necessary, so we cannot restrict access to handguns and semiautomatics.
This is, at its core, an argument about technologies. We have innovated a great number of military technologies that are kept strictly out of the hands of civilians because it is too dangerous. The list is pretty long: fully-automatic .50 caliber rifles, flamethrowers, surface-to-air missiles, nukes, tanks, howitzers, and much, much more. You and your friends cannot pool your money to buy an Apache helicopter, no matter how awesome it would be, because that technology is seen as too risky to place in the hands of the average citizen. What we are really debating is a precise limit to technology. Which technologies can be proliferated at a cost that is too great for society to bear? We have already overridden the judgment of Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company when it comes to the Abrams M1 tank. Now, we are considering whether AR-15s mights also join the list of technology with an inordinately high cost to society as a whole.
I am not a Constitutional law professor, but permit me to revisit the precise language of the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights in amateur fashion.
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed
The classic argument of the gun lobby is to ignore the first clause and clutch onto the second. Never mind whether people like George Zimmerman and my late grandfather’s pistol-packing senile 92-year old girlfriend constitute a “well-regulated militia” – Congress shall not infringe!
Personally, I lean toward the “well-regulated part” and believe that the National Guard already constitutes a militia made up of my well-trained neighbors. I think that they fulfill most of the uses of a civilian militia from long ago – to protect the public order and to repel invaders if necessary. Remember that at the time this document was written, America did not have a standing army, much less the world’s dominant military force, so even this requirement seems superfluous. But I admit that this is more the area of our Supreme Court to decide. Anything else is my opinion as a citizen.
I am much more fascinated by the assertion that we need unfettered access to handguns and military-style semiautomatics to potentially overthrow the US Government, should it become a fascist regime. I handicapped the likeliness of a citizen victory over the current US military in a polemic entitled “Your Well-Regulated Militia Will Not Kick Anybody’s Ass,” which I penned immediately following the barbarous murder of dozens of children in Connecticut at the hands of a madman bearing an AR-15. The notion of America’s aging Baby Boomer population fighting, Revolutionary War-style, a rogue state that outspends the next ten militaries combined, armed with tactical nukes, bunker busters, M1 tanks, NGA satellites, the NSA/PRISM surveillance capabilities and so on…well, I’m betting with the 8th Tank Battalion and the Navy SEALS.
More to the point, the Revolutionary War of American myth is a kind of war that hasn’t been fought and won since a couple of centuries. Around 1800, there were indeed uprisings in the English Colonies, Haiti, France and South America that did in fact depend on civilians taking up arms against abusive governments, particularly distant colonial powers. That kind of armed insurrection has not happened in decades, if not centuries. Modern insurrections are more political and cultural, as we have seen in places like Estonia, Czech Republic, and more recently, Tunisia and Egypt.
Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of every insurrection, revolution and civil war in history. I leave it you to decide what America’s brand of armed civilian insurrection would look like. I think that the current Syrian conflict can serve as a preview, with an armed government defending itself brutally against a hodge-podge of rebel factions. I can only tell you two things for certain – it sure as hell won’t look like Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, and I will be hiding out in northern Quebec waiting for the carnage to run its course.
If the only reason America allows the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world is so that someday its citizens might get the chance to fight the largest military in history on its own turf, we might do well to question such a policy.
What course of action should be taken to counter the gun lobby?
The gun lobby is out in force after every mass murder, feigning concern for the families of the deceased, saying, “This is no time for a discussion about politics.” More to the point, they do not want the American public seizing a moment of clarity, from which they might come to the conclusion that the status quo is horrific and that a new course of action is required.
First, they will assert that guns aren’t the problem, though the data say otherwise. Next, they will tell you that gun control is futile, though comparisons to other nations say otherwise. Finally, they will force their interpretation of 18th century political thought on you, saying that we must respect the thinking of our ancestors, even in the face of technologies they never considered in a nation that has surpassed their potential comprehension.
I am but one American citizen. In my view, America’s free access to deadly weapons has clearly made it more violent and less secure. The notion that we are trading the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies and millions of violent crimes for the chance at one day engaging in a civil war seems tragically foolish.
We have options for the future. Will we explore them? Or will the national debate remain mired in the specious arguments foisted on us by the gun lobby?